Iya Valley (祖谷渓) is a remote, picturesque valley hidden in the mountains of Tokushima (徳島). While it is renowned for its beauty, it is hard to access, especially for foreigners who can’t drive. Even for those who can, the drive through the narrow, winding mountain roads can be intimidating as it involves a fair amount of care and reversing to allow cars to pass. However, with the Iya Bonnet Bus, the valley becomes far more accessible!
The Bonnet Bus will pick you up from Awa-Ikeda Station (阿波池田駅), which is 71 minutes and 2,820 yen from Tokushima, 57 to 71 minutes and 3,120 yen from Takamatsu (高松), or 67 minutes and 3,340 yen from Kochi (高知). Slower and cheaper local trains are also available.
While the bus’s 7,500-yen price may seem steep at first, 2,000 yen of that goes towards ticket costs and a big lunch is included. With that in mind, it is a great deal and it is certainly cheaper than hiring a taxi or renting your own car. The tour runs from 10:45 AM until 4:15 PM or so, and it offers a great introduction to the main sightseeing spots of the area.
Here were our stops during our ride on the Bonnet Bus:
After a 45-minute scenic drive, you make your first stop at the appropriately named the “Peeing Boy Statue,” located on a high precipice along the winding mountain road. This spot is considered one of the most dangerous points in the area, so to demonstrate their bravery, people used to urinate off the side of the cliff. While this may seem like a strange act to commemorate, the statue does make for a striking picture against the lush green mountains. The statue is rather small, but the area offers beautiful views and makes for a great introduction to their valley.
We also stopped briefly by the Hi no Ji Valley. The river surrounding the mountain resembles the hiragana character, “hi (ひ),” hence the name. Unfortunately, we did not get off the bus, but we did get a decent view of the valley.
The next stop was lunch. I had imagined a small bowl of noodles and a piece of fish, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that instead, we were treated to a full elegant, traditional Japanese meal at a local hotel.
Here we could try local specialties like grilled ayu or sweetfish, as well as Iya soba made from locally grown buckwheat. Of course, that was not all – there was rice, nabe, konnyaku, fruit, and other things. Green tea, oolong tea, and beer were also included. The lunch break was rather long so if you finish early, you can enjoy the views from outside the hotel or browse the small gift shop.
The next stop was arguably the main attraction: the kazurabashi or vine bridge. This bridge used to be the only way to cross the 45-meter long canyon, and vines were used so the bridge could be easily cut to block off pursuers.
At first glance, the bridge can seem rather intimidating, especially for those who don’t like heights. The narrow slats are spaced a little far apart, forcing you to look down as you cross, and the bridge does sway as you cross. However, even though my heart was racing, it is perfectly safe. The bridge is now reinforced with steel and is replaced every three years for safety. The gaps may seem scary, but they are not wide enough to fall through.
This is actually one of three vine bridges in the area, with the other two located in a more remote area. Unfortunately, it is the least atmospheric due to the large crowds. It is still an enjoyable experience so long as you aren’t expecting any kind of quiet or solitude. I personally found it worthwhile, though I was glad I didn’t have to cross it again!
Once you cross (and take the obligatory selfie, of course), be sure to veer left to see the 50-meter Biwa Waterfall (琵琶の滝). You can also walk down to the water’s edge. To return, cross a modern bridge, which offers amazing views of the valley and the vine bridge.
Next is the Heike Museum, which is set in an old house. The original resident was Horikawa Naiki (堀川内記) who served as the doctor to the Emperor. When the Heike clan fell out of power, he and his people retreated to Iya Valley where he continued to serve as a doctor. The museum is small but packed with interesting artifacts. Unfortunately, a very little explanation for what you are looking at is given, but those who are interested in history will likely enjoy it even though everything can be viewed in a very short time.
Then we continued on to the Oboke Rest Stop that offered what was, in my opinion, far more interesting museums. While the rest stop offers the usual gift shop, tourist information, and cafe, it also houses a yokai yashiki (妖怪屋敷) and gemstone museums. A “yokai” is a type of Japanese demon or spirits like the well-known Kappa. The museum introduces a surprisingly large number of yokai through fun models, with the corresponding myth shown beside it. While not everything was translated into English, much of it was. The gemstone museum was surprisingly nice too with a large and interesting collection. While these museums are not included in the tour costs, you do get to take advantage of the group discount and I felt the 450-yen fee to be well worth it. My only complaint was that we didn’t stay for long enough because I really enjoyed the fascinating peek into Japanese folklore.
The final stop of the tour was Oboke Gorge and cruise. It was a relaxing way to end the day, and the gorge and the marble-like rock formations were stunning. Along the way, particularly striking formations are pointed out such as one that resembles a lion. There is also a part where the water becomes quite shallow, allowing you to appreciate just how clear it is.
After you get off the boat, you have some time remaining so you can take a walk around the area to appreciate the gorge from above. There is, of course, the obligatory gift shop where you can also get ice cream and other snacks before departing.
The Bonnet Bus runs every Saturday, Sunday, and holiday from March until November, as well as every day in May, August, October, and November. Reservations must be made by phone (0883-72-1231) but you can check their website linked below for available dates and seat information.
While the Bonnet Bus tour does not include all of the sights in Iya Valley, it does offer a great introduction to the area, making for a perfect day trip. And although the guide only speaks Japanese, the staff are kind enough to always supply English or Chinese pamphlets for the various attractions, and the pre-recorded sightseeing guide that is played on the bus does include English. So there’s no need to worry, you don’t have to speak Japanese to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of Iya Valley.
Bonnet Bus (Oboke-Iya Tour Bus) Website *Japanese only